The Marriage of Figaro was the first of Mozart’s three collaborations with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who also scripted Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. It was possibly Mozart’s idea to borrow the scenario from a 1778 French play by Pierre Beaumarchais, a sequel to his earlier hit, The Barber of Seville (later immortalized in Rossini’s 1816 opera). The farce was banned in Vienna at the time for its sarcastic condemnation of the aristocracy, and da Ponte had to scrub the work of its political overtones to gain the emperor’s approval.
The Marriage of Figaro transpires over the course of “one crazy day.” Figaro, the head servant to Count Almaviva, is due to wed the maid Susanna, who meanwhile has been subjected to the Count’s lecherous advances. In the end, the Count gets his comeuppance, and Figaro and Susanna marry. Although the music of the overture has no major presence later in the opera, it sets the scene for the hilarity that ensues. The overture’s form is quite lean, with neither a repeat of the exposition nor a development section. The frenetic Presto tempo and persistent eighth-notes give the prelude a breathless feeling throughout its four-minute sprint, while rising figures and drawn-out crescendos establish the buoyant tone of the opera.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Beethoven’s first two symphonies owe much to Haydn, the formidable “father of the symphony” and Beethoven’s teacher for a short while after he moved to Vienna. Soon enough, Beethoven honed a symphonic voice that eclipsed even Haydn’s in its scale and grandeur, beginning with the massive Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) from 1803 and continuing in the fateful Symphony No. 5 from 1808. Sandwiched between those landmark symphonies is a smaller specimen, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, a work that underscores Beethoven’s lasting debt to Haydn.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Symphony in mid-1806, and first unveiled it at a private concert in March 1807. Close followers of Haydn’s London symphonies might have noted Beethoven’s nod to the Symphony No. 102, which likewise begins with a held B-flat octave. Whereas Haydn made a subtle detour to B-flat minor in his introduction, Beethoven fully embraced the move to the minor scale, especially leaning on its characteristic lowered sixth tone, G-flat. The harmony sneaks back to the major key via one of the score’s many slippery and surprising transitions, launching the Allegro vivace body of the movement. Later, the introspective development section wanders off to an unexpected F-sharp chord—an enharmonic re-spelling of the pivotal G-flat from the introduction—before finding the proper F chord to prepare the recapitulation.
The Adagio movement begins with an introductory figure that seems to have lingered from the end of the first movement, preparing the way for a sweet, singing melody. The second theme, for solo clarinet over plucked and bowed violins, invokes the intimacy of chamber music. Although the first publication called it a minuet, the quick and boisterous third movement is a scherzo in all but name. The contrasting trio section intervenes twice, creating an expansive five-part form.
The spirit of Haydn is on full display in the breathless romp of the finale. It saves its best humor for the end, when the violins, as if thoroughly exhausted, slowly trudge through the main theme one last time. After a similarly lethargic response from the bassoons and then the cellos and basses, the group rallies to end the symphony with an energetic flourish.
Aaron Grad ©2014
In 1939, Olivier Messiaen was called to serve in World War II. The following May, he was captured and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz. Here, he completed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, one of his few chamber works and perhaps his most powerful contribution to the repertoire. Although parts of the score predate Messiaen’s imprisonment, Messiaen’s work on the Quartet came to represent his catharsis from “the cruelty and horrors of camp.” The remarkable story of the Quartet’s composition and premiere, too rich to fully detail here, testifies to the power of art and the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of profound tribulation.
The Quartet for the End of Time alludes to a passage from the Book of Revelations:
And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow on his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire... Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land... and, standing on the sea and on the land, he raised his right hand toward Heaven and swore by He who lives forever and ever... saying: ‘There will be no more Time; but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled.’
Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote in his preface to the score of the quartet, “When we are freed from before and after, when we enter into that other dimension of the beyond, thus participating a little in Eternity, then we shall understand the terrible simplicity of the Angel’s words, and then indeed there shall be Time no longer.”
I. Liturgy of crystal. Between the morning hours of three and four, the awakening of birds; a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose them- selves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven. The piano provides a rhythmic ostinato based on unequal augmentations and diminutions—the clarinet unfolds a birdsong.
II. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Between these sections are the ineffable harmonies of heaven. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitative of the violin and cello.
III. Abyss of the birds. Clarinet solo. The abyss is Time, with its sadness and tediums. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song! There is a great contrast between the desolation of Time (the abyss) and the joy of the bird-songs (desire of the eternal light).
IV. Interlude. Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements, but related to them nonetheless by various melodic references.
V. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is here considered as one with the Word. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello, expiates with love and reverence on the everlastingness of the Word. Majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
VI. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of extended note values [and] augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or icelike frenzy. Listen particularly to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes, toward the end of the piece.
VII. Cluster of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of time. Here certain passages from the second movement return. The mighty angel appears, and in particular the rainbow that envelopes him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, of wisdom, of every quiver of luminosity and sound). In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying inter- penetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbows!
VIII. Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second glorification? It ad- dresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus–to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, raised up immortal from the dead so as to communicate His life to us. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise.
–And I repeat anew: All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the over- whelming grandeur of the subject!
Patrick Castillo ©2015